Gaming the Presidential Debate

There are two amazing things about the upcoming debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama at Hofstra University on Tuesday night: everyone has an opinion about what each candidate should want to accomplish, and most of the advice being given is horse manure.

Not wanting to contribute to the dung being tossed around by the rest of the commentariat, we will forgo giving any counsel to the candidates and concentrate instead on how things are likely to play out.

In truth, it is Obama on the receiving end of most of that advice. After the devastating debacle in Denver, all liberals in the U.S. think they can help the president get his mojo back. Lanny Davis is serious when he suggests that Mr. Obama be respectful, be “firm and strong” when criticizing Romney’s policy positions, and:

3) Most heretical of all — concede a little when you can when the truth requires that you made some mistakes in your first term — and aver that will make you a better president in the second term.

One can only ask what Mr. Davis is imbibing and request he share the brand with everyone. Barack Obama concede he made a mistake? He told Charlie Rose that his biggest mistake was not telling the American people stories about what he was doing.

Does that sound like a candidate eager to admit he blew it?

As for the president pulling a Biden on Romney by laughing, giggling, and contorting his face like a two year old with a soiled diaper, the Obama campaign is already saying they aren’t going to do that:

“You should expect that he’s going to be firm but respectful in correcting the record and the times we expect Mitt Romney will hide from and distort his own policies,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Monday. “He’s energized and I expect he will also be making a passionate case.”

Obama’s primary method of attack is mockery — very unpresidential but effective on the stump. But how will it play in the town-hall format chosen for the debate? When the object of one’s mockery and sarcasm is standing next to you, the tactic can backfire. Belittling an opponent in person can appear mean and small, something the president can’t afford to do. Biden played that role in the vice presidential debate and it cost him some. But can the president get “tough” on Romney without the sarcasm? On such trifles will the debate hang.

For both candidates, it will be a zinger competition — who can get off the most hellacious, gob-smacking, dagger-plunging one-liner of the evening. It has to be a little humorous to take away some of the sting, but it must be on point and on target. And it must be memorable and worthy of being endlessly looped on the cable nets for the next 48 hours. It also must impress the watching audience enough that the first blush of polls give a clear edge to the candidate.

Both men have expectation problems. A Pew survey before the first debate showed a majority of registered voters — 51%-29% — believed the president would win. With the bar set so low for him, Romney’s strong, confident debate performance propelled him to something of an easy victory.

But Pew’s latest shows that expectations for Obama have fallen some while Romney’s have risen markedly. Voters still believe Obama will win, but the margin has narrowed to 41%-37%. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee an Obama victory, but it makes it easier for him to meet the expectations of voters and the pundits.

For Romney, there is little doubt he will be on the defensive more than he was in Denver. The Obama campaign has already said they are going to bring up the “47%” gaffe as well as criticism of Romney’s stint at Bain Capital. Expect Romney to try and turn those criticisms into attacks on Obama’s record. There are also indications that the president is once again going to go after Romney’s tax plan, as well as the studies cited by Paul Ryan that are supposedly favorable. As Jen Rubin points out, this is a criticism easily brushed aside:

When Obama goes into his routine that Romney’s tax plan is a $5 trillion cut, he should ask the president why he keeps repeating disproven talking points. Likewise on Medicare, the president seems unwilling to admit he’s taking from Medicare to pay for Obamacare (Vice President Biden said that they were just “saving” money from Medicare) and unable to characterize his opponents’ Medicare plan honestly. Without getting too exasperated, Romney can certainly remind Obama, “We went through this all last time and I can do it again, but your version still isn’t true.”

Not to put words in Romney’s mouth (and in violation of my “no advice” rule), but since the press can’t or won’t ask him, why not inquire about the president’s own plan to save Medicare? Or his plan to cut the budget deficit? Or his plan to create jobs? Exposing the vacuousness of Obama’s second-term agenda would seem to be a no-brainer.

We should expect the president to employ several variations of the word “lie” when discussing Romney’s agenda. He will also almost certainly try to paint Romney as a rabid, fire-breathing right-wing nutcase. Neither tactic has worked so far and one shouldn’t expect the debate to be any different.

For Romney’s part, he will tread carefully on criticizing the president on Libya, but will make the case that Obama blew it nevertheless. It is an issue that is still percolating below the surface of the campaign and is one significant revelation away from becoming a major problem for the president. But Romney cannot be seen as exploiting the deaths of our diplomats, and he will stick to the facts, which are damaging enough anyway, and eschew hyperbole.

Obviously, Obama has a tougher job even though expectations have been lowered for him. But he is not in unfamiliar territory. The president has had bad weeks and months before, as Time’s Michael Scherer points out:

In early June, shortly after President Obama stumbled in a press conference by saying, “the private sector is doing fine,” his senior White House and campaign aides began an e-mail chain with each other. It listed all the other times over the last six years that the media had declared Barack Obama on the ropes, like the time in 2008 that footage leaked of Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, and the time the debt ceiling deal blew up. As the message bounced from inbox to inbox, the list of setbacks got longer, and the point was unmistakable: Everyone needed to keep a little perspective. The previous two weeks in June–with a bad jobs report, a dipping stock market, a teetering European Union and Obama’s own gaffe–were just a passing phase. Team Obama knew how to bounce back.

And bouncing back is easier for Obama than it is most other presidents. What makes Obama tough to beat is that he has a very high floor of support nationwide, especially in the swing states. His approval rating has fallen below 40% only a couple of times and almost immediately risen above it. It makes Romney’s job very difficult indeed because, in effect, the GOP candidate has to lower the president’s floor of support in order to overcome what is certainly going to be an Obama advantage in get-out-the-vote operations on Election Day.

The most immediate way he can do that is to win the debate by convincing voters his plan for the economy is sound. While the president is busy criticizing Romney for something he allegedly did at Bain Capital, Romney will be talking jobs, jobs, and jobs again. The contrast should be telling.

A town-hall format might seem to favor the president, but don’t bet on it. Romney showed in Denver he is quick on his feet and more than able to handle himself in ad-lib situations. The question will be how big a hand moderator Candy Crowely intends to take in the proceedings. She claims that she will not be a “fly on the wall” and that she will “react organically” to the proceedings.

Somehow, I don’t think that means she’s going to react  like a carrot in a garden.

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